Editorial: Not Meant to be Alone

Social isolation is a quiet epidemic in affluent Western societies. What’s happening? What can be done?

“As many as 800,000 people in England are chronically lonely and many more experience some degree of loneliness. 17 per cent of older people interact with family, friends or neighbours less than once a week, while 11 per cent do so less than once a month. It is linked to cardiovascular disease, dementia and depression and according to some researchers, its effect on mortality is similar to smoking and worse than obesity. One study revealed that it can increase the risk of an early death by as much as 30 percent.”

 

Researchers created a banal scenario: a group of people would play a frivolous game of catch, tossing the ball to one another to pass the time, trying to keep it aloft. But the scientists set up the game with one condition: unbeknownst to her, one member of the group would never have the ball tossed her way. Try to put yourself in her shoes: you’re in a group that starts a game of catch; the ball popcorns randomly around the group; giggling and frivolity ensue; you keep waiting for your chance to join in the fun. But the ball never comes your way. You’re patient at first. You smile when others smile. You inch a little further into the circle to try to draw attention. Your smile is becoming more forced now. There’s still a sliver of hope that your exclusion is random. Until eventually you conclude: the ball is never coming your way. This game isn’t for you. You pretend you didn’t want to play anyway. You stop trying.

But this isn’t a just about a game. In fact, the researchers discovered that the ostracized person will testify to an increased sense that life is meaningless and devoid of purpose. The game just pulls the curtain back on a fundamental human need.

Now imagine this isn’t an experiment but the shape of a life: instead of waiting for a ball to come your way in a silly game of catch, you’re waiting for anyone to call or drop by or speak your name. You can’t even express it, but you’re hungering for some sign that you are known.

But no one calls. No one asks how you’re doing. No one listens to your thoughts about the morning news. You are alone. Except there are hundreds of thousands of you. You’re not alone in being lonely—not that that makes you any less lonely.

Loneliness—often a factor of social isolation—has become a societal epidemic in late capitalist societies. The Centre for Social Justice provides a succinct snapshot in the United Kingdom, for example:

As many as 800,000 people in England are chronically lonely and many more experience some degree of loneliness. 17 per cent of older people interact with family, friends or neighbours less than once a week, while 11 per cent do so less than once a month. It is linked to cardiovascular disease, dementia and depression and according to some researchers, its effect on mortality is similar to smoking and worse than obesity. One study revealed that it can increase the risk of an early death by as much as 30 percent. In addition to this there is a strong link between isolation and poverty: having two or more close friends reduces the likelihood of poverty by nearly 20 percent.

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